Who Is In Charge

Legislature debates whether grading schools boosts transparency or stigmatizes poorly resourced schools

Tennessee schools might soon come under the same grading system as the students they serve.

The state Senate unanimously passed a bill Wednesday that would assign letter grades to schools based on a combination of data including student growth and proficiency rates on state tests and ACT scores. A House committee approved the measure a day earlier.

For supporters, it’s common sense. Letter grades are easy for parents to understand when trying to determine how their child’s school is performing, or where they should send their child to a school.

Critics, however, say letter grades lack nuance. Instead of clearly identifying the quality of a school, letter grades could oversimplify their status and circumstances, further stigmatizing schools and communities with low-income populations.

During discussion Tuesday in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee, Rep. Johnnie Turner (D-Nashville) said giving a school a failing grade would be the equivalent of branding the school with a scarlet letter.

“I can see the headlines now: Blank Blank School — F!” she said. “I would ask that we not add another layer of embarrassment, of defeat, to those communities that serve particularly the poorest of the students.”

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley) echoed Turner’s concerns, predicting that well-resourced schools would receive As while schools with significantly less resources would get Ds and Fs.

“What I’m afraid we’re going to have is the clearly A schools and then we’re going to have schools that are actually improving, that are actually doing a wonderful job based on the tax base, based on the amount of poverty in their community, and they might not be graded as high,”  Fitzhugh said. “I think that would just be a slap in the face to the students, the parents, to the leaders in the community, to the citizens of the community.”

Tennessee already is heralded for its detailed school report cards, which are accessible online. Currently, the report cards list school information ranging from proficiency rates to racial achievement gaps. But letter grades would add another layer of simplicity for Tennesseans curious about their schools, said Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin), who introduced the bill the House.

“I think it’s just good to have a macro-view,” in addition to the existing detailed information, Casada said.

Casada, who represents one of Tennessee’s wealthiest districts, said he understands that poverty and lack of resources would be obstacles for some schools to achieve a good grade, but that these are the realities of our world today. A businessman, he compared the challenges to how he is expected to make sales, even during an economic recession. “When we’re graded, when we’re analyzed, it puts us beyond our limits,” he said.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education, founded by Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to promote education reform, has been at the forefront of the push for school letter grades. Florida began grading its schools in 1999 as part of a wave of changes designed to increase school accountability. Testifying last week before Tennessee’s Senate Education Committee, Christy Hovanetz, a policy fellow for the advocacy group, said the simple addition of letter grades to school report cards helped raise the quality of schools across Florida. “Our A-to-F focus really provided focus and guidance on where our schools should be heading in the future,” she said.

The group has advocated for passage of similar legislation in 16 other states.

Some states have experienced a backlash. In North Carolina, educators say the letter grades don’t accurately reflect school quality as much as a school neighborhood’s socioeconomic makeup. However, many politicians say they are pleased with the attention the grades are drawing to high-need schools.

Here’s what you had to say when we asked about the bill on Twitter:

Now that you’ve read about the debate, what do you think? Tell us here:

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

Like us on Facebook.

Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates on Tennessee education news.


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”